As you are beginning to plan your thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, you’ll find a lot of terms and acronyms that are used in the hiking community. Some of the big ones are related to the direction of travel on the AT.
- NOBO: Northbound- these hikers travel north from Georgia to Maine
- SOBO: Southbound- these hikers travel south, from Maine to Georgia
- Flip-Flop: These hikers start at some mid-point of the trail, and travel one part of the trail going north and another part of the trail going south.
There is no “right way” to thru-hike the AT, as long as you complete the whole 2,198.4 miles in a 12 month span. The majority of hikers tend to be NOBOs, starting at Springer Mountain in Georgia and finishing at Katahdin in Maine, but there are pros and cons to each style of hike.
The Appalachian Trail travels through 14 states from Georgia to Maine
Photo: Free Appalachian Trail Maps
Northbound Thru-Hiking: NOBO
The majority of AT thru-hikers are NOBOs, with around 2500 hikers starting at Springer Mountain, Georgia and finishing at Katahdin, Maine. Most hikers begin between March 1 and April 15 and take 5-7 months to finish.
Pros of a NOBO Thru-Hike:
- Hike through the seasons: Start in Georgia in the spring, where water is plentiful, the weather is cooler, and finish in the early fall in Maine. Katahdin doesn’t close until around mid-October, so that gives hikers plenty of time if they start in March or April.
- Start with more gentle terrain: While the trail includes many steep climbs and descents, the southern states tend to be more gentle than the northern states. The trail is mostly smooth under the feet, with fewer rocks and roots, and includes switchbacks to make it easier to get up the mountains.
- Build your trail legs gradually: New Hampshire and Maine contain the hardest sections of trail, especially the White Mountains. If you travel NOBO, by the time you make it to New Hampshire, you’ll have your trail legs to help power you through the Whites.
- More trail support: Trail support is designed with NOBOs in mind, with hostels and towns getting ready for the thru-hiker crowd in the spring. Trail towns, road crossings, and services are plentiful in the south, which makes resupplying easy. You’re also more likely to encounter trail magic during a NOBO hike as people come out to support the 3,000+ hikers on the trail.
- Hiker bubble: Most thru-hikers travel NOBO, so there are plenty of opportunities to meet other hikers, share shuttle rides and resupply items, and build a tramily (trail family). With so many hikers, you’ll have a lot of fun both on the trail and when in town. The trail is very social during NOBO season, so you’ll never feel alone.
- An epic ending: Climbing Katahdin is a magnificent ending to a thru-hike, with a 4,000 foot climb in around 5 miles, this mountain is the pinnacle of a strenuous journey. And at the summit, you’ll find that iconic wooden sign to climb on for your finisher photo.
Cons of a NOBO Thru-Hike:
- The bubble is crowded: Since most hikers travel this direction, you may find yourself in the “bubble” with the majority of others attempting their thru-hike. Shelters may become crowded and hostels book up quickly. Expect to stand in a line while waiting for the privy in the morning at the shelter and leapfrogging multiple hikers throughout the day. If you prefer solitude, you may feel like you’re getting lost in the crowds at times. But, you’ll still be able to find some space while hiking and camping if you need it.
- Time constraints: Katahdin closes in mid-October due to snow, so it’s advised for thru-hikers to finish before then. Depending on your start date, you may feel the rush of getting to Katahdin before your window closes. This tends to make hikers focus on mileage and possibly push themselves harder than they should.
- Cold start: If you start early in the year (January-April), you’re likely to hit some cold weather and snow in the high elevations of the south, particularly in the Smokies. To plan for the cold, you’ll need to carry heavier cold weather gear at the start of your hike. Most hikers hold on to their cold weather clothes and heavier sleeping bags until after they pass through southern Virginia, when they can lighten their load a bit. This means you’ll be starting your thru-hike with a heavier pack, before you’ve gotten your trail legs.
Best Start Time for a NOBO Thru-Hike:
- March through April
Southbound Thru-Hiking: SOBO
Only around 500 people travel SOBO each year, beginning their trek at Katahdin in Maine and ending at Springer Mountain, Georgia. These hikers are offered more solitude in exchange for beginning with the most difficult terrain.
Pros of a SOBO Thru-Hike
- Solitude: Since most hikers travel NOBO, you’ll find the trail much quieter if you decide to start at Katahdin and travel south. You’ll have more solitude at shelters and campsites, and may hike for several days without running into other hikers.
- Close-knit tramily: When you do meet other SOBO hikers, you’re likely to form a more tightly knit group. You’ll see the same handful of people on trail and in towns, so you’ll get to know them quite well.
- Get the hard part out of the way first: By starting in Maine, you’ll get the hard stuff, like the White Mountains of New Hampshire, out of the way first. By the time you reach the southern states, your well attuned trail legs will allow you to glide through Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia with ease.
- Warmer start: If you plan to start your hike in the summer months, you can hike south through the summer and fall. By not carrying winter gear during your start, you can enjoy having a lighter pack while you gain your trail legs.
- Less time constraints: You’ll have less time constraints if you travel south, since you will have already climbed Katahdin in the early summer. When you get to the southern states in the fall, you’ll be rewarded with gorgeous weather and views.
Cons of a SOBO Thru-Hike
- Late start: You can’t climb Katahdin until around June when the snow melts off the mountain, which limits your starting window.
- Challenging Start: The terrain is extremely difficult in the beginning for southbounders- steep ascents and descents, exposed ridgelines, long rock scrambles… you don’t have a chance to build your trail legs before tackling the hardest part of the trail. Tough river crossings- early summer snowmelt could mean for difficult river crossings in Maine, where there are no footbridges on streams or rivers, water levels are highest in May and June.
- Anticlimactic ending: You’ll finish your hike at Springer Mountain, which isn’t as scenic or challenging as the climb up Katahdin; the finish is a little anticlimactic.
- Less trail support: The support systems along the AT are really set up with NOBO hikers in mind, and the timelines aren’t geared toward SOBO hikers. Going SOBO, you’ll likely find less trail magic, have longer waits for hitches into town, and might find some hostels closed for the season particularly when you get into the southern states.
- You might get lonely. Only about 500 people attempt a SOBO hike each year, compared to over 3,000 NOBOs. Traveling south will mean more quiet and solitude, but could also make for some lonely days on trail. This could be a downside for some hikers; it really depends on your personality.
- Buggy start: An early June start in the north means you’re likely to start your hike right in the middle of biting black fly season in Maine, followed by mosquitoes and gnats through the mid-Atlantic in July. Be prepared with bug repellent and bug nets.
Best Time to Start a SOBO Thru-Hike:
- June through July, after the majority of ice and snow have melted off Katahdin
Some hikers choose to do what is called a “flip-flop” hike instead of going all the way north or south. Logistically, this is the most complicated hike, but it offers a lot of freedom. Basically, you hike part of the trail northbound and part of it southbound. Some hikers choose to start their flip-flop at the halfway point in Harper’s Ferry, WV sometime in the summer. From there, they travel north to Katahdin alongside the other northbound thru-hikers. After summiting Katahdin, they get a ride back to Harper’s Ferry and then continue their hike southbound to Springer Mountain. While many flip-floppers start at the halfway point, you can really start your flip-flop anywhere along the trail. Sometimes, a northbound hiker has to change their hike into a flip-flop in order to make it to Katahdin before it closes in mid-October. They’ll hike north from Springer Mountain until the fall, and then “flip” up to Katahdin and hike the rest of the trail south. There are tons of options for flip-floppers!
Pros of a Flip-Flop Thru-Hike
- Flexibility: Choose where to start, where to flip, and which direction to travel. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has outlined several popular flip-flop itineraries on their website, but you can modify or create your own. Start with your favorite sections, or save the best for last.
- Easier start: If you start your hike in the mid-Atlantic, you can start on easier terrain than what you find in the southern states.
- Get the best weather: Flip-floppers can time out their hikes to hit the best weather while on trail. If you start in April/May at Harper’s Ferry, you can start in mild weather and be out of the mid-Atlantic before the summertime heat and humidity. Then you can walk south into the fall and enjoy the beautiful fall foliage of southern Appalachia.
- Fresh legs at Katahdin: Northbound thru-hikers are pretty beat up and exhausted by the time they get to Katahdin. Many of the hikers I saw (myself included) were just ready to get it over with! But flip-floppers, having done only half of the trail when they get there, aren’t sick of it yet. They’ve got their trail legs, but they aren’t so physically and mentally depleted.
- Avoid crowds: The most crowded part of the trail is in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina in the early spring when the northbound thru-hikers are beginning their journey. Flip-floppers can skip the crowds and enjoy more peace and quiet on the trail.
- Experience the NOBO and SOBO hike: The typical NOBO and SOBO hikes are very different experiences. If you can’t decide which one you want to try, go for a flip-flop and get the best of both worlds!
Cons of a Flip-Flop Thru-Hike
- Less trail community: It might feel a little strange not being a part of the NOBO or SOBO hikers community. A lot of trail traditions, like the half-gallon ice cream challenge at the halfway point don’t really fit the flip-flop itinerary. Most of the trail community is built around the NOBO hiking season, so if your timing doesn’t sync up with the NOBOs, you might have less trail support during your hike, similar to SOBOs.
- Logistical challenges: NOBOs and SOBOs travel in the same direction the whole time, which makes navigating, shuttles, and town stops simple. But if you flip-flop, you may find the logistics more challenging. The guidebooks, apps, and trail signs designate mileage markers mainly for NOBO hikers, but you’ll have to calculate your own mileage between points. Your halfway point will be different than everyone else’s. And you’ll have to rent a car, hop on a plane, or get a shuttle ride to go up or down the trail when you flip.
- You might get lonely: You’ll likely be traveling south with the SOBOs, so you might experience some of the same on-trail loneliness that they do. You may be at campsites and shelters by yourself and hike for several days without seeing another thru-hiker. You might find it hard to form a tramily when your plans don't line up with other hikers.
Best Time to Start a Flip-Flop:
- Anytime! That’s the benefit of the flip-flop. But if you do a traditional north-south flip-flop starting at Harper’s Ferry, you might want to aim for an April-May start date.
Hike Your Own Hike
NOBOs, SOBOs, and Flip-Floppers all have their own unique hiking experiences. Choose what is best for you, and as they say on the AT, hike your own hike! You can design your thru-hike however you want, and don't be afraid to change your plans if you need to.
Stay tuned for more tips and advice on how to plan your Appalachian Trail thru-hike, and happy hiking!